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Book Review: KISS FAQ by Dale Sherman

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I have always been rather proud of the fact that KISS were playing at my very first rock concert, with Cheap Trick opening for them back in 1977. It was the Love Gun tour, and I was 14.

Three years later though, I (and many others) had pretty much signed out of the KISS Army. Music From “The Elder” was it for a lot of us. When they took off the make-up and had a couple of hair-metal hits in the 80s, it was kind of cool to see them still at it. But besides the strangely fascinating Gene Simmons’ Family Jewels show, I haven’t really thought about them in years.

So when the new KISS FAQ book came along, I was intrigued. For this lapsed fan, I knew that there must be a ton of information that I was previously unaware of. I have read a few of these FAQ series books, and have discovered quite a few interesting things about the bands in question. Jon Stebbins’ Beach Boys FAQ and Glen Boyd’s Neil Young FAQ are just a couple of examples.

As it turned out with the KISS FAQ book though, it wasn’t so much the obscure factoids that I enjoyed as much as the fan-based discussions of things like best/worst album covers, pivotal moments in their career, and (of course) merchandise.

The 356-page KISS FAQ by Dale Sherman is broken down into 31 chapters, which are presented in something of an “author’s whim” chronology. Sherman begins with the basics, the original four band member’s lives leading up to the formation of KISS, the departures of Ace Frehley and Peter Criss, and the various “re-births” of the band. That material was expected.

What was completely unexpected was a chapter discussing the actual number of sexual conquests of Gene Simmons, or a chapter titled “Did KISS Peak with Howard the Duck? A Look at the Comics.” Granted, the comics are of interest, but Howard the Duck?

Since Gene has made his life an open book with his TV show, and there is not  much “weird stuff” in the can – there is not all that much about the music that even a casual fan does not really know about at this point. I had hoped for a little more insight into The Elder, because I never could figure that one out. Apparently nobody else did either, because according to Sherman, outside of a very rough sketch of what the “story/film” was supposed to be, when the album stiffed, the entire project was abandoned.

As mentioned, the most enjoyable aspect of the book for me were things like best/worst album covers. Consensus has it that the first Alive album is their best. I would have picked Destroyer, which came in at number two. Animalize from 1984 gets the overwhelming vote as the worst cover ever.

For the book as a whole, the chapter “KISS is still KISS,” and subtitled “Ten Commonly Perceived Turning Points for KISS” was probably my favorite. Subjects such as “Beth Was the Moment KISS Became Successful,” “The 1978 Solo Albums,” and “The Original Band Breaking Up Was The Fall From Grace” are great subjects. Sherman debunks certain points here, and provides his own analysis, which adds perspective. For example, I (and many others) first heard (and loved) the live “Rock and Roll All Night” in 1975. “Beth” was just song to flip over for the vastly superior “Detroit Rock City.” Yet, in the Top 40 world of Debby Boone and the like, “Beth” was the hit. It was certainly their biggest single, by a long shot.

Sherman also talks about the genesis of the solo albums idea, the marketing, and everything else that went into that whole situation. No matter what you think of the idea, or the albums themselves, one thing is absolutely certain. Nobody had ever pulled a stunt like that before. He also mentions that those albums gave rise to the old music industry canard, “Shipped gold, returned platinum.”

If there is one thing I just flat-out disagree with in Sherman’s approach it is the way he continually tries to compare KISS to The Beatles. I mean, come on! Yes, it was four dudes, each with their own “personality.” But the freaking Beatles! God, I wish he was joking, but he isn’t. He even has a chapter titled “Ten Possible KISS Fifth.” His conceit is that there were many who were considered the “fifth Beatle,” so who would be the fifth KISS?

I concede that the idea has validity. Beatles fans legitimately consider both Brian Epstein and George Martin as “fifth Beatles.” And if Sherman were not continually pushing KISS as the 70s version of the Fab Four, I would not have much of a problem with the point. He cites manager Bill Aucoin and Casablanca chief Neil Bogart as unsung, yet essential to their early success, which is definitely true.

Besides these strained Beatles comparisons, I enjoyed the KISS FAQ quite a bit. But for very different reasons that I did some of the other books in the Backbeat Books series. To end on a bit more of a positive note, there are plenty of trivial items that I had never heard before.

One of them involves Cheap Trick. When I saw Cheap Trick open for KISS, they were touring behind In Color, and their follow-up was Heaven Tonight, which contained the hit “Surrender.” There is a great line in that song that goes, “Mom and Dad were rolling numbers, got my KISS records out.” What I did not know was that Rick Nielson would actually toss out KISS records to the audience at that moment in concert. Totally cool.

To quote what I imagine Sophie and Nick Simmons must often think, “Mommy’s alright, Daddy’s alright, they just seem a little weird. Surrender.” With KISS, it seems surrendering is about our only option, as 40+ years together (in various forms) just cannot be argued with.

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